When Lt. Col. Oliver North became NRA President yesterday, gun lovers throughout America welcomed their new leader. CEO Wayne LaPierre called him "a legendary warrior for American freedom, a gifted communicator and skilled leader" and Dana Loetsch praised him as "a total warrior for freedom" and "the last person anti-gun advocates would want" occupying this position. The rest of the country with a memory of history was not so thrilled:
North is better known today for his show on Fox News (which he just resigned from) where he advocated for nutty conspiracy theories, like that Obama paid ransom to terrorists for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. However, his major claim to fame is the Iran-Contra scandal under the Reagan administration -- a scandal that was, at the time, the most consequential public crime to hit Washington since Watergate.
During the final years of the Cold War, the United States worried that Russia would expand their reach to the Middle East, given its ongoing war in Afghanistan, as well as Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini's desire to "export" his revolution to other countries, possibly leading to either Soviet takeover or alliance. However, Iran's army lacked top-grade weapons to make such a thing possible, since after seizing the hostages in 1979, President Carter embargoed US export of weapons to Iran. Although this ban was overturned after Reagan took office, in 1983, they launched Operation Staunch to persuade other nations not to give weapons to Iran either.
At the same time, Democrats in Congress passed the Boland Amendment to curtail the power of the National Security Council, mostly to keep them and the Reagan Administration from funding the Contras, a group of Nicaraguan rebels hiding out in Honduras, plotting to overthrow the former country's Sandinista government. Getting rid of Sandinista was a top priority for Reagan, and while they continued to supply arms and training for the Contras, they did so in violation of this law, re-enacted in 1984 that outlawed all Contra support for 1985. Reagan and the NSC continued supporting them through a covert operation known as "The Enterprise."
Back on the Iranian front, in 1985, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane gave Reagan the idea that to protect Iran from Soviet influence and free US hostages held by Hezbollah, the United States should send weapons to Iran, carried into the state by Israeli intermediaries. Through this, they might open negotiations with Iranian moderates who opposed the Ayatollah's regime and might take over after his death. CIA director Bill Casey supported it, but Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger urged him to reject it on multiple occasions. Against their wishes, Reagan agreed to McFarlane's plan in the summer of 1985.
At first, it seemed to work - when the first shipment of weapons was made, Hezbollah released its first hostage - but no hostages were released after that, even though the US sent more than 500 missiles to the Iranians. After four months of this, on December 4th, 1985, McFarlane resigned as National Security Adviser, to be replaced by Admiral John Poindexter. That same week, Oliver North, then a military aide to the NSC, entered the picture. And that's where things get interesting.
North proposed a new version of the plan. While still using an Israeli arms broker, Manucher Ghorbanifar, to obtain the weapons, they would give the weapons to Iran directly rather than using Israel as a back channel for their shipping. In addition, North proposed a $15 million dollar markup to the weapons, which, when added to Ghorbanifar's 41% markup, raised the price of the whole venture significantly, but with an added bonus: the US would then secretly use the money obtained through the transfer to fund the Contras in their war against the Sandinista regime. Some elements of this plan were withheld from Reagan - what the President knew and when he knew it has never been completely clear - but he did approve the overall gist of it.
Throughout 1986, the US kept trading weapons (more than 2,000 in all) in exchange for a gradual release of the hostages, instead of pursuing an "all at once" policy. Ghorbanifar was chopped out of the proceedings entirely, and North met several times with a new contact in the Irani government, Revolutionary Guard soldier Ali Hashemi Bahramani. Although Bahramani was involved in international terrorism, the US government eagerly accepted his friendship, even going so far as to give him an after-hours tour of the White House that year. Then, in November 1986, the scandal was blown wide open when an airlift of guns was found in Nicaragua. A Lebanese magazine released a report on the operation, and the Reagan Administration reached its lowest point. North tried to save face by shredding documents related to it, but it was too late. Reagan fired both him and Poindexter, both of whom would later be indicted on multiple charges, but have their sentences commuted on appeal.
Iran-Contra was more than just a bad deal on the part of foreign policy hawks. It was a violation of the executive branch's authority to overstep Congress and the Constitution. North and company, in violating the Boland Amendment, believed themselves above the law. Congress made the budget, but the President had executive authority, and to North, that outweighed this check on their power. The performative power of deciding who is and who isn't "the law" was never more present than in the Reagan years - and not just because Reagan started as an actor, but because, in embodying the idea of the sovereign leader, he granted himself with the authority to break unions, intervene in other countries, and perform illegal weapons deals. This no doubt enabled his advisors to act as the law themselves, assuming that they knew better than the other branches of government.
The irony of his election as NRA president is rich, not just because he became famous illegally trading arms and will now fight for the right to bear them. North's behavior in the scandal was that of an unscrupulous businessman, doing whatever he could to achieve maximum profit. The NRA, in spite of all the power it has, is still just a group of gun manufacturers who want Americans to have greater access to their product, even if the product they sell has been deregulated to the point where much of it should be illegal.
If the NRA needs someone to sell this shameless agenda, it might as well be a man as lacking in moral faculties as Lt. Col. Oliver North.